The List of the Best Political Books Ever

Start with All the King’s Men.

By + More

By John A. Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Over at The Fix, ace compiler Chris Cillizza has been soliciting nominations from his readers for the honor of the Best Political Books Ever, and just published his findings. The list has its ups, and plenty of downs. Cillizza starts off strong by recognizing the one volume on American politics--fiction or non-fiction--that has stood, above all others, for more than half a century. That would be All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. Nothing else comes close. Maybe, nothing ever will. It's the American King Lear or Julius Caesar.

(I'm assuming that Mr. Shakespeare's plays, and the Bible, fall into other categories, otherwise they would top all lists of political fictions.)

So I was flabbergasted to discover that Fix readers slighted Warren and chose The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor as the best novel on politics. The choice says something about the decline of higher education and literary standards in the Internet age: What are the colleges teaching these days?

Or maybe it's a comment on the middlebrow culture of the nation's capital. Wasn't it Michael Kinsley who described Washington as a town filled with former high school student government presidents, driving Honda Accords to work?

Perhaps it was Spencer Tracy's great performance as Frank Skeffington in the movie version that swayed Fix fans--except that Broderick Crawford was even better as Willie Stark….

But I digress. The choice is inexplicable. Cillizza clearly knows what he's talking about, and his readers are doofuses.

Filling out the fiction list, Allen Drury gets a mention for Advise and Consent and Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey for Seven Days in May. (Not to belabor a point, but the slow kids in my high school got to read Advise and Consent while the smart kids were assigned All the King's Men.) The inestimable Ward Just is named for Jack Gance and Gore Vidal for Lincoln. But no Joan Didion? No William Kennedy? No George Higgins? Shouldn't Ayn Rand get cited, for her influence alone?

And no Joe Klein? If we're talking O'Connor and Drury and Knebel, I would certainly make an argument for Primary Colors, Klein's homage to Warren's masterpiece.

And for these two by George Higgins: A City on a Hill, and his wonderful novel on Massachusetts politics, A Choice of Enemies. (And will the person who borrowed my copy please return it? No questions asked.)

From Ward Just, A Family Trust, and Nicholson at Large are right up there with Jack Gance for me, but this is like choosing diamonds over rubies. And then there is Twenty-one, his collection of short stories, which includes the chiseled gems: Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women and The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.

It's not American politics, but don't we have to mention George Orwell? And in telling the tale of George Smiley and his colleagues in the British secret service, John le Carre gave us a riveting exploration of the corrosive effects of the Cold War and the evils of human bureaucracy. His books give us an unmatched portrait of Political Man.

Vidal has such a lovely body of work, and it can be difficult to choose among Lincoln and Empire and the others. But, c'mon boys and girls, Burr is the clear standout here. No one piece of fiction, nor many of non-fiction, tell us as much about the Founding Fathers--and therefore America--as Vidal's rambunctious telling of the life of Aaron Burr.

It's the one book I fought for in the divorce. If I remember correctly, I had to give up the collected works of Drury to keep it. It was worth the trade. 

  • Check out this month's best political cartoons. 
  • Become a political insider: Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly, our digital magazine. 
  • See the members of Obama's inner circle.